To not quote George W. Bush… “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” And that, as you shall see, I learned the hard way.
As soon as he pulled up a stool at the bar I got this strange feeling I’d seen him before. I didn’t know where and I didn’t know when but a past came along with this customer I couldn’t put my finger on. It’s a vibe you sometimes get in this business where even though you don’t know the face you know the person. And it’s usually a bad thing.
But this face seemed somewhat older than I’d known it, puffy it appeared from booze, even his hands were swollen to the point of no knuckles. Not a good sign. He’d apparently stepped up his drinking since the days when I’d known him. But did I know him, was the question, or was I mistaken? Then he opened his mouth.
“Jack Daniels on the rocks,” he said, rolling in an Irish accent, and that’s when the face I had known emerged from the bloat.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but isn’t your name Billy? And didn’t you used to drink at a place called (anonymous)?”
He lit up. “Why yes, yes I did,” he said smiling.
“Well I used to be the bartender there, do you remember me?”
He stared for a moment, scrunching up his brow, til the light came into his eyes announcing recognition. “Ooooh, yes I do,” he brogued, “sure as hell I remember ya’. How’ve ya’ been there, man, it’s been a good while.”
“It has been a while,” I said, “a good ten years now. I’ve been fine and you?”
“A-h-h-h, no complaints over here… still rollin’, still goin’, a little o’ this and that, you know how it goes.”
“I do know how it goes,” I said, “and I know how it went too. I had to bar you from the other place, do you remember that?”
The light left his eyes and a cloud rolled across his brow. “Er-ah, yeah, geez, I do seem to remember something like that. I do. Yeah, yeah, I do remember that now, I do. It seems we had a bit of a problem one night.”
“No, Billy,” I said, “we had a problem over many nights. Which begs the question now, have you changed at all?”
“Ah, not to worry,” he said, extending his hand to shake mine. “I’m clean now. No problems a’tall, no problems a’tall.” (“Clean? Isn’t that a drug term? He wasn’t someone I remember as being on drugs”)
“Well I hope you’ve changed,” I said, shaking his hand. That swollen hand.
Then against my better judgement, I poured him a Jack on the rocks and set it in front of him.
Now first off I should tell you that this guy is far from a dope. He’s friendly as hell, charming as hell, has a big job over at the U.N., and can talk on most any subject with knowledge and assurance. Sadly endlessly, which is why he gets into trouble and is shown the the door. (He can’t stop talking with knowledge and fucking assurance!) He’ll work his way into people’s conversations, buying a round as entree, then bore right into their night like a drill through balsa. To the point where their eyes start rolling and I have to step in. Like I did that last time I saw him those ten long years ago.
He’d cornered these two tourist ladies after trying to buy them a drink, and barraged them for twenty straight minutes with an onslaught of bullshit. Which they didn’t want to hear. Until finally, seeing no relief, they called for their check.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I said to the ladies, handing them their tab as requested, “I’m sorry you had to put up…”
“How dare you apologize for me,” Billy jumped, shouting across the bar, “no one, but no one apologizes for me!”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Billy, especially when you’re too damn rude to do it for yourself.”
“Why this is a bloody outrage!” he shouted, comically mirroring a Wodehouse character suddenly refused his membership into The Drones Club. “How dare you not take my part, this is an outrage!”
“No, you’re the outrage,” I said, “and you’ve also had your very last drink in this bar. That’s it, Billy!” Then I rang up his tab and slammed it on the bar in front of him.
Shocked and crestfallen, he lowered his voice and tried the financial approach. “Ah, let’s not get hasty,” he whispered, “do ya’ know how much business you’ll lose if ya’ bar me? Do you realize how much I spend and how much I tip, mate? This is not smart business.”
“I’m aware of the money you spend and the price isn’t worth it. Not by a long shot. You’ve done this too many times in the past and having a peaceful bar means more than your money. No, Billy, I’m sorry but you’re done here.” And he was. Until ten years later when I got him again in this bar.
Now had he changed, like he said, and did he behave himself? Just ask the lovely young couple who was sitting next to him…
Acting just fine through his first Jack Daniels, enjoying the music and pretty much keeping to himself, the old Billy quickly emerged in the middle of his second. With bells on. And I wanted to kick my own ass for being so naive. I’ve been in this business way too long to not know that people can’t change who they are when they drink, so why did I fall for this? People who drink a lot and often, and Billy certainly qualifies, are never who they are when sober and that’s just a fact. This whole other person arrives on the scene who in some cases shows up morose, sometimes mean and belligerent, sometimes witty and charming and fun, while other times simply an ass, but never does this other self not show up while drinking. And Billy’s other self, for the record, is all of those people.
So after leaning into this happy young couple who’d been there for a good two hours and truly enjoying each other, Billy opened up with a chat about God knows what. I was too busy and too far away to hear them. But I wasn’t too busy to see their faces and how they reacted to his blarney, and what started out as a friendly conversation with smiles and nods all around (I told you he could be charming), gradually devolved into frowns and attempts at ignoring him. Then raised voices. Til the man finally raised his hand and called for his check.
“Is everything okay over here?” I said to the man before I wrote up his check. Meaning, I didn’t want them leaving on Billy’s account, I’d throw Billy out in a second if that was the case. But I was too late.
“Yeah,” the man said resignedly, “we’re all fine here. But I’ll take my check just the same, Sir, if you please.” Yes Billy had struck again, dammit, again after ten long years, just like he had with those tourists ladies back when I barred him. And I felt responsible.
So I also made out Billy’s check, told him he’d had enough, and that I’d seen enough of his act to prevent any future visits. I barred him again. But aside from him ruining this couple’s evening and obviously far more important, the real sorry point in a story like this and what I find hard about this business, is watching a guy like Billy throw away his life. A life that is gifted with all that talent and smarts. Plus his physical appearance is shot to hell (he can’t be much more than forty), and his demons still rule the day when he takes to the drink. Which, judging by his swollen hands, he takes to a lot.
But hey, this is the business I’ve chosen (right?) and these are the sights in Barland. Cardiologists deal with hearts, psychiatrists deal with dreams, maybe in dealing with a person like Billy I’m dealing with a broken heart or an unfulfilled dream. Who knows?
See you next week-end with hopefully a more upbeat topic.